Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: Digital words with Constellations panellists
Constellations is a Harm Reduction International festival of ideas, conversations and drug policy discussions. Tickets can be purchased here.
With the stellar HRI conference Constellations starting tomorrow, TalkingDrugs had the opportunity to catch up with some of the panellists for a talk that hands-down one of the best titles in drug policy discussions. Named “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: A Meaningful Discussion on The Role Of Drugs And Pleasure On The Dancefloor”, this discussion will happen on Tuesday 23 November. Spanning experiences from across the globe, each speaker will comment on the world of dance and music, looking at the often underdiscussed and frequently publicly ignored cousin of drug use: pleasure.
As a taster of what is to come, TalkingDrugs had a (digital) conversation with Deji Ayoola, a cinematographer based in Lagos, Nigeria that documented lived experiences of drug use; Dr Giulia Zampini, Criminology Senior Lecturer at the University of Greenwich, UK, and coordinator of People and Dancefloors project; and Mitchell Gomez, Executive Director of US-based and music-focused harm reduction organisation DanceSafe. As we are still living through the aftermath of the global centennial pandemic, all of our conversations were held online; although some answers were text-based or shared on the move through Zoom calls, the novelty of their views and the experiences they bring are felt through their responses. These exchanges have been compiled and briefly edited, with the main message left intact.
What got you interested in researching/exploring the world of pleasure and drug use?
Mitchell - Interestingly, I was interested in psychedelics long before I could ever find psychedelics. I first read 'The Psychedelic Experience' when I was 9 or 10, and was immediately fascinated by the idea that some substances could change our perception of ourselves and the world around us.
Giulia - We all know the expression guilty pleasure in association with drugs like sugary foods, drink, and conspicuous consumption more generally. Pleasure is like a dirty secret, and we are so embarrassed by it that we don’t acknowledge it as a fundamental fact of life, that we are pleasure seeking beings.
I am going to repeat that: We are pleasure-seeking beings by nature.
Pleasure is a central driver of humanity and human behaviour. There is absolutely no point denying that. Maybe that is why different (authorities, religious, political etc.) have tried to control and restrict our access to pleasure. There are some very good discussions about this out there, the most recent one that comes to mind in relation to dance and collective pleasure is Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. A discussion for another day, perhaps.
The problem with pleasure and drugs specifically is the double deviance. So not one but two dirty secrets!
What has come out of participants’ (to the People & Dancefloors’ project) narratives is that most people (though not all) hide their illicit drug use from family and colleagues, only discussing it with close friends - often the kind of friends who also partake in the same activities. This of course has to do with the stigma associated with illicit drug taking, but also the double deviance of pleasure-seeking through illicit behaviour. Being able to hide pleasurable drug use is a form of privilege mostly afforded to people who hold a veil of respectability, who engage in normative behaviour and meet mainstream social and cultural expectations beyond their drug taking, such as having a professional career and being in heteronormative relationships.
Deji – I’m a cinematographer, I work mostly on films and TV in Lagos. I’m always in the space with the people in the film industry and those like to party a whole lot. Two years ago, I met someone who was doing active work in that [harm reduction] space. I was telling her about the first time I saw somebody OD and what that experience felt like to me –at that point in time, my stance was entirely against drug use. So she educated me on how it’s impossible to eliminate drug use entirely, the approach should be to make it safe for people.
In Lagos, most of the drugs people use is alcohol, and there’s a lot of weed. The bulk of it comes down to alcohol and weed. In Lagos they make a lot of local brands of alcohol. They sell alcohol in little white kegs, and sometimes what they’re actually selling is almost pure ethanol. You can imagine how damaging that can be to your liver compared to a regular off the shelf brand. I studied biochemistry in university, so I try to educate people on the possible side effects of drinking like 90% ethanol. I try to educate people on the day-to-day basis, which is important in reducing harm more generally.
Could you tell me of a time where you saw or experienced a lot of fun or pleasure on the dancefloor?
Mitchell - Far more times than I can count, but watching the sun rise at Boom Festival in 2002 very, very high on LSD was an absolutely life changing moment.
Deji – So I probably go partying probably twice a month. So about a month ago, I went to a strip club with my girlfriend and a couple of other friends. There’s a couple of strip clubs in Lagos, not that many. I was having mostly Glen scotch whisky. The thing with aged whisky is that you don’t really know when you hit your limit yet, because it kicks in very slowly. So you think you’re not there yet, and when it kicks in it’s probably more than you should have had.
So it’s around 3 am my girlfriend and I are just dancing and I’m literally everywhere on the dancefloor. That was her first time at a strip club; she wants to get a lap-dance so we walk around and she picks this random black girl who’s just in the corner who looks like she’s dejected and nobody’s really paying attention to her. I’m like, “okay, that’s interesting”; I told her my girlfriend wants a lap-dance from her and she just goes to town on her for like half of the night.
Giulia - A drugged dance floor experience is pleasant if:
- The drugs are good and dosed correctly
- There is a little space to dance (but not too much to avoid feeling disconnected)
- There are no harassers
- The club security is respectful, and
- The DJ can put tunes together.
So much of it is about the environment. You could have good drugs dosed correctly but none of the other things in place, and it wouldn’t be much fun at all. Good drugs for me at the moment are a small amount of mushrooms + small amounts of ketamine, and if I want to dance all night, a small amount of MDMA. Too much of any of these alone or in combination is meh. Also, no alcohol.
Why has drug-facilitated pleasure been left out of drug policy conversations?
Mitchell - I think that there has been such a heavy focus on harm reduction for a very good reason, the harms of prohibition have created a world where drug use is so dangerous in many ways we're all caught up in triage. With the fentanyl crisis sweeping the US that seems unlikely to change any time soon. That being said, I believe a 'benefit maximization' policy, where we are open and honest about the good that comes from substance use, is needed to counter the drug war propaganda that all drug use is abuse, and all use is inherently harmful.
Deji – So from a Nigerian perspective I haven’t been to Europe before – it’s a traditional thing. We don’t like to talk about a lot of things here. Like, we don't talk about sex openly. We don't talk about drug use openly. We’re literally just like “everything's bad”. So we don’t really care to explore what parts of it might be good. Let’s say it’s a societal thing, a traditional thing. I find that like, especially when drug use is controlled, and taken in moderation, it will have so many freeing benefits, you get this great out of body experiences. But nobody really cares about that because there’s just a bad side hanging very close by. In Nigeria, if something has a bad side to it, it’s entirely bad.
Giulia - Drug policy has been constructed first and foremost through a prohibitionist framework, which implies that drugs are bad and should be banned, so a strict focus on risk and harm does also flow from that. In terms of morality, to culturally acknowledge pleasure is impossible from either a religious or a liberal standpoint. From a religious standpoint, pleasure is sinful; from a liberal standpoint, pleasure is private. Hence the deafening silence about pleasure in the public domain.
Why do you feel like the fun and pleasure of drug taking is left out in public conversations on drugs? Could the "pleasure" from drug taking be included in drug policy conversations away from the dancefloor?
Mitchell - In a single word: stigma.
Without an honest and frank discussion of benefit maximization, we will never end the drug war. And the drug war must end.
Giulia - Crucially, for some of the most marginalised people, drug use might be the only form of pleasure left in a life devoid of other pleasures.
So, instead of creating a binary between pleasurable recreational drug use and problematic, harmful, addicted drug use, it is much more useful to acknowledge that all drug use has pleasurable elements to it, and if we are open and honest about that, we can reframe the narrative. We can say, for example, that it is more pleasurable to use clean needles instead of just saying it is healthier, as Magdalena Harris and Tim Rhodes suggested. Framing injecting exclusively through a public health/harm reduction lens, with either negative or “neutral” language, is limiting, in part because it does not address the whole experience. Including pleasure in the discussion allows us to put a positive spin on it while also being realistic and achieving harm reduction goals.
Harm reduction is often justified as a pragmatic response to mitigate some of the risks of drug use, but really it was always a political movement trying to bring drug user knowledge to the centre while addressing some of the failings and devastating consequences of prohibition. The problem is that conceptually and practically, by focusing solely on harm, we have hit a wall.
In the past, the only health that existed was physical health, so people mental health would only figure when there was a problem. The only type of health understood as universal was physical health, with mental health as an occasional addendum. Suddenly, a drug that can potentially harm your body can also help your mind, help you feel good. If feeling good is the goal, then people may feel emboldened and even justified in taking drugs and dancing, for example, using the justification – “it’s good for my mental health”.
I think that this mental health turn can help us to rebalance discussions about harm and pleasure in the context of drug use. Using the word health in the context of pleasure would be quite revolutionary. Healthy pleasures rather than guilty pleasures, perhaps.
Deji – So again I’ll speak from a Nigerian perspective. I don’t really think we’re at the point where we can actually bring those conversations in; we need to first break down the stigma of drug use before that conversation can come in. We’re very far from breaking down that stigma before we can start talking about enjoying drugs safely. We’re not even past the stigma of drug use in its entirety.
Is there any key message you would like people to take home from your talk?
Mitchell - Virtually every harm a person thinks comes from drugs either comes entirely from drug prohibition, or is made worse by drug prohibition.
Giulia - We are pleasure-seeking beings by nature. Many risky activities are pleasant. Many pleasant activities are risky. Pleasant activities can be harmful. Talking openly about risks, harm, and pleasure of drugs can only lead to good health.
Thank you to Deji, Giulia and Mitchell for their time. This is just one of the many great panels that will be part of the Constellations festival. Check out their programme here for a taster of all the issues covered. You can register here for tickets.